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Adhikaar: From Knowledge to Action

March 3, 2014 , by Ojaswi Kafle, Leave your thoughts
Adhikaar: From Knowledge to Action » My Dreams Mag
Factors like language barriers, immigration status and unfamiliarity with navigating the health-care system prevent immigrants from seeking help. Adhikaar is an organization in New York that helps new immigrants clear these hurdles and orient themselves to the US.

 

They accused her of breaking a plate and deducted $100 from her pay. Worried that she would dig herself into a deeper hole if she spoke up, Sabita Acharya* kept quiet. She continued to work under the harsh conditions thousands of other Nepalese are subjected to in the United States, the promised land in the eyes of so many.

This is the country where dollars grow. I spent a lot of money to come here in the hopes of earning what I couldn’t back home,” Sabita explains. “I would remind myself of this, but I often broke down and cried.”

Then, her earnings came to a sudden stop. Sabita was fired when she finally stood up for herself in 2010. She was late to work because the train whose path she had memorized rerouted that day. Sabita didn’t have the English language skills to ask for help. Her employers were visibly agitated when she arrived half an hour late even though her work for the week didn’t start until the next morning. Sabita inquired why they were so upset with her when she had for over 3 years been on time and taken good care of their family and home as a live-in nanny. They accused her of talking back to them. She tried to explain herself, but they told her they no longer wanted to employ someone who disrespected them.

Luna Ranjit wasn’t surprised by Sabita’s story when she heard it. As the co-founder and Executive Director of Adhikaar, a non-profit organization that provides assistance and support to New York City’s Nepali immigrant community, Luna had listened to countless accounts of abuse against workers. In fact, stories like that of Sabita are what pushed her to launch Adhikaar, meaning ‘Rights’ in Nepali, in 2005. “New York is a relatively easy place for immigrants,” Luna says, “but because of the language barriers, lack of time and awareness, a lot of abuse happens.”

Take the case of Rabin Kumar Biswokarma, whose employers tried to swindle him out of his earnings by giving him checks that bounced. He was told that the problem wasn’t the checks; it was him. They accused him of not knowing how to cash checks. The belittlement and fraud was only a part of what Rabin endured. He worked more than 10 hours a day without a break and once went 21 days without a day off. When he injured his hand in the restaurant, his employers forbade him from taking time off to seek medical assistance. His promised salary of $500 a week dropped down to $100 and then to nothing. That was when Rabin quit and received the invalid checks disguised as his final payment.

He hadn’t anticipated any of this when he moved abroad. “I had dreams,” Rabin shares. “I carried dreams with me from Nepal to the U.S. But they went a different route than I had imagined.” With no access to sufficient funds if he couldn’t obtain the amount he was owed, Rabin kept asking his employers for the money. The restaurant owners responded by challenging him to call the police. “They told me, ‘Go. See you in court,’” Rabin recalls. They thought that because Rabin was new to New York and had low proficiency in English, he would silently go away.

They were wrong. He filed a lawsuit against them – in New York and other states, labor laws protect all workers regardless of their immigration status. He first issued a demand letter requesting the amount he was due with the assistance of Adhikaar and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF). Nothing happened. Then Rabin, together with the two organizations, brought on the lawsuit. The employers tried to fight it. In the meantime, Rabin did a press conference, which was covered in both print and digital media, to heighten pressure on the offenders. He also spoke about his experience at Adhikaar’s fundraiser and with other people. Finally, after 2 years, the employers settled in court. “I gained courage through his experience,” Rabin reflects. “People need to know that they shouldn’t let others take advantage of them. You need to stand up for your rights. There are laws in place to protect you.”

In addition to the legal assistance that Rabin received, Adhikaar provides a range of services including other forms of direct services, referrals to appropriate organizations, English classes, and leadership training. The organization’s focus areas are what it has identified as the main needs of the Nepali immigrant community: access to healthcare, immigrant rights, and workers’ rights. “Our goal is to work with the community to raise awareness and to prevent exploitation from happening,” Luna explains. “We saw people not being paid at work and being harassed there. We saw people hadn’t gone to the hospital for years because they were told that if they went to the hospital, they would get a big bill. No one ever told them those bills are negotiable. It’s that simple information that can save people’s lives.”

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Factors like language barriers, immigration status and unfamiliarity with navigating the healthcare system also prevent immigrants from seeking help. When Goma Regmi* became sick shortly after moving to the U.S. nearly 7 years ago, she didn’t know where to go or what to do. She stayed at home, hoping that she would eventually get better. Thankfully, she didn’t have to find out to what extent her poor health would wreck havoc on her life because an Adhikaar staff member she knew visited her and took her to the hospital.

But after the hospital visit, Goma was still as lost as before. “I didn’t know what to buy at the grocery store and how. I didn’t know how to ask for direction in the streets,” she says of the effects of not knowing English. Being unable to overcome these seemingly small hurdles prevented her from adjusting to life in the U.S. She decided to attend Adhikaar’s English class, which helped her tremendously.

31329_398220748252_2947461_nCalled English for Empowerment, the class does more than teach English in a traditional manner. Attendees learn about resources, their rights and how to interact with others, and they role play and speak in front of their peers. By being able to practice the English they would need in the real world with confidence, Adhikaar members become prepared to direct their lives in the U.S.

It’s a very non-judgmental, supportive space,” Luna says. Thanks to its informal nature, the class, as well as other Adhikaar programs, creates a strong sense of community in New York City’s Woodside neighborhood. Even now, when the class is on a break for the winter, members come and socialize with one another and the Adhikaar staff. “There’s an open door policy here,” explains Executive Assistant/Communications Associate Prarthana Gurung. This casual environment is instrumental in helping Nepalese feel comfortable enough over time to share their struggles and take action. “Everyone is facing an issue. But these issues don’t come out the first time you see someone,” Prarthana continues. “People first come in by saying for example that they are new to the area and would like help with housing. After getting to know one another, the relationship that’s built creates a space for members to open up. These people become very involved later on.”

And involved they do become. Goma and Sabita joined their fellow community members in rallies to protest against the lack of laws surrounding domestic workers protection at that time. Members took days off from work to go to New York’s capital to advocate for the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights. “In partnership with other organizations, we informed Senators in Albany about the conditions in which domestic workers work,” remembers Narbada Chhetri, Director of Organizing and Advocacy. “They were shocked. They realized that so many of their grandmothers and ancestors had done similar work when they immigrated to the U.S.” In 2010, New York became the first state in the nation to pass the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights.

Empowering and educating people about their rights and encouraging them to take action is critical if we want to see justice,” Narbada states. This action can be as big as advocating for laws or as personal as negotiating a raise. “In the 3 years I worked with the employers who fired me, I was never given a raise. I worked from 5 am to 12 am,” Sabita recalls. Determined not to be taken advantage of again, she attended Adhikaar’s English class and spoke with the Adhikaar community. She learned the laws and about her rights and how to navigate herself in New York City and in her profession.

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Before, I didn’t know how to get around. Even if I understood how to go somewhere, I would be anxious that someone would stop me and ask for my papers,” Sabita says. “But once I started going to Adhikaar and learned a few things, I became relieved. They taught me to stand up for my rights and negotiate on things like the pay rate. I do this in job interviews.” She gives out a little laugh, soaked with relief about where is now as opposed to a few years ago. Where she is now currently is in Adhikaar’s Steering Committee. As a committee member, Sabita acts as the eyes and ears of the organization, plans events, and provides feedback on staff’s new ideas and thoughts.

Goma also continues to be involved with Adhikaar. Her role is different. She is the business owner and Adhikaar is her client. For the past 5 years, she has been catering Nepali food to Adhikaar, Nepali restaurants and other places around the neighborhood. “Adhikaar gave me the idea to start a business on my own,” Goma says. “Before then, I wasn’t sure what to do. My husband couldn’t work because he was sick from Nepal. But now, I have enough to eat, sleep and live well.”

Adhikaar’s has always strived to create this empowerment. “The goal is for them to not need us,” Luna stresses. “We have people who come in new and not know anything. They are bewildered about everything,” Prarthana adds. “We help them. And then six months later, when someone else new comes in, the first person says ‘I went through this. I can help you.’ It’s very reassuring to see that the community is building itself in a lot of ways with us facilitating that process.”

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This chain of empowerment was clearly visible when I paid a visit to Adhikaar’s office in February 2014. Sabita was sitting in the kitchen, eating Goma’s food and explaining to another Adhikaar member how to negotiate her salary and assert her rights. Until I learned of her story, I hadn’t even guessed that Sabita had sought Adhikaar’s assistance. Seven years ago, she may not have known much about living a confident and fulfilling life. But today, Sabita has become the expert.

 

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Text By: Ojaswi Kafle (USA)
Images: Adhikaar

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